Pharaoh Claudius erects pole for fertility god

Researchers from Swansea University in Wales and the KU Leuven University in Belgium have identified a carving of Roman emperor Claudius as a pharaoh participating in an ancient ritual for the fertility god Min on the western wall of the temple of Shanhur about 12 miles north of Luxor. The temple dates to the Roman era. It was first built as a temple to Isis under Augustus but the carvings on the western and eastern exterior walls, 36 on each, were all done during the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 A.D.).

The carvings were first exposed during an archaeological excavation in 2000-2001. Before that they had been covered by a mound of soil that obscured and protected the exterior temple walls, leaving the carvings in excellent condition. In the decade or so since they lost the protection of the mound, the carvings, made on lower grade limestone that is highly susceptible to erosion, have unfortunately been weathered so they’re much harder to make out now. The Swansea-KU Leuven team began recording and translating the exterior wall carvings in 2010.

It’s scene 123 on the western wall that is the stand-out piece, both in terms of preservation and historical significance. It depicts Claudius doing the ritual of the raising of the pole for Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and power. This ritual is ancient, going back 4,300 years to the Old Kingdom, which we know from the 32 extant scenes of the pole-raising that have been found. What makes this one so special is not just the involvement of Clau-Clau-Claudius (if you haven’t seen I, Claudius, please do so immediately; there will be a test), but the fact that the inscriptions include a precise date when this particular ritual took place. It’s the only one of the 32 that does.

The scene shows Claudius garbed in pharaonic regalia. He wears a complex crown known as the “Roaring One” made out of three rushes embellished by sun discs and solarized falcons. The rushes are flanked by ostrich feathers and perched on ram horns. He carries two ceremonial staffs in his left hand and a scepter in his right. The accompanying inscription identifies him and dates the ritual:

King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands, Tiberios Klaudios
Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns, Kaisaros Sebastos Germanikos Autokrator
Raising the pole of the tent/cult chapel for his father in month 2 of the smw-season (Payni), day 19.

Min stands across from Claudius, facing him. He holds a flail and wears a double feather crown with sun disc. As is customary for this fertility god, he also sports a magnificent erection. Behind him is his cult chapel and between him and Claudius eight men enact the ritual by climbing four poles propped against a central a pole topped by a crescent moon.

The inscriptions and iconography suggest that by performing this ritual, Claudius assumes the formidable characteristics of Min:

[Words spoken by Min (or Min-Ra)… Lord of?] Coptos, Lord of Panopolis (Akhmim), who is on top of his stairway,
[…] King of the gods, strong sovereign, who captures
[…] who roars when he rages, lord of fear,
[…] the one who brings into control the warhorses, whose fear is in the Two Lands,
[…] about whose beauty one boasts, who inflicts terror/scares away with his strength.

He’s not roaring with rage at Claudius, though, thanks to the pole-raising. By executing the ritual, Claudius keeps the cult of Min alive and asserts his power over “the (southern) foreign lands” which, according to the inscription, Min gives to him.

The inclusion of a date indicates that this ritual event actually happened, although Claudius himself was not present in person. He never went to Egypt. A priest probably acted as his proxy, something that was common even in the pharaonic era since the king couldn’t possibly be present for every ritual.

There’s another Claudius-Min ritual carved in the exterior eastern wall. In this one Claudius makes an offering of lettuce to Min and Horus the Child. The lettuce symbolizes Egypt’s crops which will be made abundant thanks to Min and his prodigious endowment.

[Take for] you the lettuce (|‘n) in order to unite it with your body (or phallus) and lettuce in order to make procreative [your] phallus

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20 thoughts on “Pharaoh Claudius erects pole for fertility god

  1. I just wanted to say thank you for posting up something for me to read each day. I cannot tell you how much I look forward to these, and actually as I comb the global news looking for “real” stories, at least ones that hold significance to me personally, I often see ones that you would like, and think, ” I bet he posts this one up there.”. And sure enough, sometimes within a matter of minutes, you have it up there!

    Do you have any published works I can purchase and read? Forgive my ignorance, but what exactly do you do? And I know I am drawing the laughter of many of your followers right now, but my interest in your life outweighs my fear of ridicule, at least it does at this moment 🙂

    BUt, again, thank you for adding in a beam of light to my sometimes very harsh world.

    With true regard,

    -Tom Carroll

    1. Rebecca is right that I tend to be cagey with my personal details. It’s not the air of mystery I’m after. I just want to focus on the history, you know? I don’t have anything published at the moment, but I’m working on a little something and will let y’all know when it’s done.

      Meanwhile, I will settle one issue for you. I am indeed a woman, although I have used a Snapple bottle in an extreme situation. :giggle:

      Incidentally, I’m sure you’ve drawn no ridicule whatsoever from anyone here. I enjoy reading your comments as much as you enjoy reading the entries, and I have no doubt everyone who has had the chance to read your words feels the same way.

  2. Thank you so much for your interesting blog.

    The type of lettuce used in the ceremony with Min produces a white liquid, and the lettuce itself is tall and rigid. Thus, it is supposed, a worthy link with the Min ceremony.

    I have been working up a blog about this interesting ceremony and the lettuce used, which hopefully will be up in a few weeks.


    1. I read about the milky liquid and its likely relevance to Min. but it was literally one line so I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to include it. I’m very much looking forward to reading all about it on your blog. 🙂

  3. ‘Sebastos’ rendered not only Claudius’ roman title of ‘Augustus’ into the hellenistic world, which in our case was then transcribed into hieroglyphs (hiero=holy, glyph=script). After the roman conquest, some of them apparently still worshipped Greek over Latin.

    P.S.: ‘Coptos’ might also be related to ‘coptic’. From the scripts of Wikipedia: “…The term [coptic] is thus ultimately derived from the Greek designation of the native Egyptian population in Roman Egypt (as distinct from Greeks, Romans, Jews, etc.). After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, it became restricted to those Egyptians adhering to the Christian religion. The Greek term for Egypt, ‘Aigyptos’, is itself derived from the Egyptian language, but dates to a much earlier period, being attested already in Mycenean Greek as a3-ku-pi-ti-jo (lit. ‘Egyptian’; used here as a man’s name). This Mycenaean form is likely from Middle Egyptian ḥwt-k3-ptḥ (“Hut-ka-Ptah”), literally “Estate (or ‘House’) of the Spirit of Ptah” (cf. Akkadian āluḫi-ku-up-ta-aḫ), the name of the temple complex of the god Ptah at Memphis.” Then, in an article on ‘Caphtor’, confusingly Crete is referred to as ‘with caphtorim’. Moreover, I am about to hold a ‘block, lettuce and knife ritual’ in my kitchen.

    1. I know, it’s a link rot epidemic. I’ve been too daunted to take the plunge, but I’m planning an upgrade to the site and I’ll make certain all the links are active.

  4. Tom, I am as curious as you are, & I admire your courage for coming right out & asking, but I think Livius prefers to be an international man of mystery. Perhaps he is someone quite famous – Johnny Depp, say, or Joshua Bell, or one of the Beastie Boys — and wishes to keep this aspect of himself separate. Or perhaps he is quite rightly concerned about being hounded by rabid history fans wishing to photograph themselves with him at nightclubs or archeological sites. Can you imagine how often he would be pelted with Victorian undergarments? We should probably leave the man his privacy. (One reader posited that Liv might be a woman, but given the comment about peeing into a bottle in order to watch the Richard III coverage, I tend to disagree, unless it was a masterful bit of misdirection…)

  5. Thank you for your comment. I am a stage 4 cancer patient, and have lost my ability to speak at age 42, I will be 43 on the 14th. I think I have lost all the precursors in life that control most others behavior, and I rather enjoy it. It is a gift that I am very thankful now, and wish I had had my whole life long.

    Regardless of myself, I more wanted him/ her to realize that what may feel at times a petty action of posting up an article, even if it is not a sizzler, its value is quite high to me.

    Thank you again for reaching out to me with some comment on our man of mystery 🙂


  6. Hello, and thank you kindly for the note. It is late here in the US, so I will not keep this long. I do appreciate you responding to my comment. I hope that you do publish your work, and I hope to be able to read it one day.

    My favorite time in history changes all the time, but if there were one I would like to hear about, it would be the early years of Octavian’s reign. In the US, we hear about Caesar, and then we hear about the tyrants that followed him, but we seldom, if ever, hear about the good and benevolent leaders in Rome.

    I’d say the early years of Octavian’s reign.

    Thank you kindly


  7. Tom, I look forward to your Octavian birthday post, & I am tickled that we now know more about Livius, whom I will now visualize as a Persona-era Liv Ullmann. Thank you so much. I too am looking forward to reading anything she writes, as she brightens my inbox every day.

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